Nomological Net

Stray thoughts from here and there. The occasional concern for construct validity. No more logic. Fish.


faults in the clouds of delusion

Saturday, August 04, 2007

The Silk Road Chronicles, Day 3 (part 2)

Our drive back from Yangguan was punctuated by a pit stop to fill gas. Not just gas gas, but the real gas – CNG. This VW ran on CNG. It was funny – everyone was made to get out of the car while they piped it in. The meter at the pump had three readings. Ours went 10.66m-cubed, 19.22 Yuan, 1.80 Y/m-cubed.

Lunch was at "Tian Shi Cai Gen Xiang" -- Jessica’s favorite Sichuan restaurant in town. As we walked in, it seemed as if several raucous groups were having quite a party. Mainland Chinese believe that the world is their bonedish, and indeed, chicken bones and other assorted food was amassed all over the floorspace – we had to pick our way through the debris to a blessedly private room inside. I was actually quite thankful that we got a private room – these are not unusual in China, but this particular restaurant hadn’t looked all that upscale. But then, what did I know? TPB was fascinated by the noise, especially of the drinking games, outside, and kept wanting to go out and take a look. The one time she took the camera to shoot a clandestine video, she came back with no success.

Jessica, meanwhile, had gone crazy ordering. I had said to her as well that we really like dan-dan mian (no, it’s not as if I couldn’t stop talking about it – it comes up quite naturally when people mention Sichuan food), but she had shaken her head in disapproval. To her mind, dan-dan mian is wholly inferior to Dunhuang noodles. (A slight digression – it was really interesting how every one of the guides we had during our trip was so strongly “patriotic” about the particular region they came from. Louis, who you’ve already met, kept talking about the glory days when Xi’an was the capital of China, bemoaning the fact that it hasn’t been the capital for centuries now, and stating his envy for me since I come from Delhi which has almost always been the capital of my country. Jessica, for her part, had greeted us at the airport with, “Welcome to my beautiful city,” and, throughout her stay there, kept saying that she wanted us, “to leave with the best impression of Dunhuang.”) So we had plates of Dunhuang noodles, accompanied with a mixed eggplant and peppers in tomato base, cold eggplant (blame TPB), Sichuan style green beans with the Sichuan hua jiao (aka ‘fagara’) peppercorns, kung pao chicken (J insisted), and Dunhuang duck (duck in the desert?!) that Jessica emphatically claimed was better than Peking Duck. Now that’s a strong claim in my book, given how much of a fan I am of the latter. This was *WAY* too much food but I couldn’t stop eating. The duck really *was* great and it just went so well with the beans. I was again disappointed with the tea.

In response to a query of mine, J said that the local specialty was donkey-meat noodles. “In China we have a saying; in heaven there is swan meat, on earth there is donkey meat.” I requested a plate for lunch the next day.


After an overwhelmingly large lunch, we headed off to the Mogao grottoes. These grottoes, built after a monk fifteen hundred years ago had a vision in which he saw thousands of Buddhas lighting up a sheer cliff a few miles out of town, are today the best surviving and (therefore?) most famous examples of Buddhist cave art along the Silk Road. They are also the venue of one of the most controversial episodes of relatively recent history in those parts. Briefly, about a thousand years ago, some unknown eventuality caused an enormous treasure-trove of Buddhist manuscripts, scrolls, paintings, and other paraphernalia to be sealed into a chamber built into the side wall of one of the many hundreds of caves at the site. This chamber was a little hole about ten feet cubed but it was packed completely full, so one can guess at the amount of materials it would have contained. There they lay, forgotten, until 1900, when a Taoist abbot, Wang Yuanlu (who was also the caretaker of the caves at that point), discovered them by accident. Abbot Wang was in need of money to help restore the grottoes so he sold a few of the manuscripts that he had found. The local authorities learned of this, and, despite (or possibly due to) their disinterest in following up on the lead, by 1904 had forbidden him to either excavate or sell anything else from that cave.

However, the Anglo-Hungarian explorer and archeologist Aurel Stein had gotten wind of this find. And in a move that made his career, he rushed to the site (arriving there in 1907), with a small party consisting of him, an Indian aide called Hari Singh, a Chinese translator called Chiang, their three cook/attendants, and his terrier Dash (the first of many such identically named terriers who were to accompany him throughout Central Asia). At Mogao, Stein discovered that Abbot Wang was unwilling to even let them into the cave, let alone part with anything. However, during conversation, Stein learned that Wang was a huge fan – almost a devotee – of Xuan Tsang. This was one thing they had in common. The ice was broken. Stein persuaded Wang to let him take a look. Once inside the cave, he realized that this was no ordinary archeological find. Further persuasion followed. Finally, Wang agreed to let Stein and Chiang carry a few armloads of manuscripts to their camp at night, to look at. Immediately, they set to work. The scope of the treasure was beyond description. Stein and Chiang immediately recognized that they were holding documents in several different languages – Chinese, Persian, Sanskrit, Uyghur, Sogdian, and many others they didn’t recognize. Stein’s lack of expertise in Chinese history hurt him – how was he to know which document of the many he was holding was a priceless treasure? All night they worked, as best they could, and when morning came Stein approached Wang with an offer. “In the memory of Xuan Tsang”, he asked for permission to carry a few of his chosen manuscripts and scrolls back to his homeland where – he said – they would be preserved safely (now that they were unearthed, he said, who knew how long they could be preserved in these badlands? Plus, the money that Stein offered, he realized, would go a long way towards meeting his caretaking needs. He relented. Stein and Chiang, in the final analysis, carted away crateloads of materials, including documents, religious manuscripts, and exquisite full length silk scroll paintings. In return, they paid a hundred and seventy pounds.

Stein was followed in 1908 by the mercurial French scholar Paul Pelliot. Where Stein was an explorer playing historian, Pelliot was a historian set out to explore. At Mogao, he was far better able to winnow through the cave-full of materials, sorting out manuscripts of true value. Following him, over the next decade and a half, came the Germans, the Russians, the Japanese, and the Americans. Stein, too, returned to the scene of his triumph. By 1930, when the Chinese government banned all further excavation and export, almost all of the treasures of Mogao and the hidden library cave were gone.

This episode is controversial for obvious reasons. The Chinese still seethe at the names of these “tomb-robbers” – who deceived their own and carted their history off to foreign lands. Defenders of the explorers argue that Stein (and others) were right – the Chinese would have been utterly unable to protect this from the ravages of the desert as well as each other. After all, the Mogao caves were where bands of fleeing White Russian soldiers took shelter in the 1920s, the soot from their stoves blackening the thousand-year old Buddhas in the cave in which they were kept; and one where subsequent members of the Russian army were incarcerated in 1942. Furthermore, the Chinese themselves went on a history-destroying rampage during their Cultural Revolution. Would these manuscripts and scrolls have survived?

The Chinese answer this wryly by pointing to the fate of Albert von le Coq’s collection. This German, Stein’s contemporary and equal in forging the discovery of the Silk Road was on course and would comfortably have been the first Westerner to see the Mogao collection if he had not been ordered to travel in the opposite direction to meet his boss. However, even though he arrived there much after both Stein and Pelliot had come and gone, the fact that he had heard about their expeditions and hence was prepared meant that he was able to carry huge swathes of materials out. All of these were carefully stored in the museum in Berlin – where thirty years later, they were bombed into nothingness.

Such is the story of the Mogao caves, and only my full belly damped my anticipation as we drove there through the bright Dunhuang afternoon. We walked the ten minutes from the crowded parking lot on a tree-lined road that ran along a dry muddy river, on the other side of which stood the open cliff with the grottoes. The cave faces had all had their exterior “protected” in the 1960s, so with their lines of bare rectangular gray-on-gray doorways they gave off a grim Communist aura – a bit like something from the Dekalog. At the entrance we had to wait for an English-speaking cave guide, who we were told we were sharing with two other foreigners. They turned out to be a 45-ish Frenchman who looked like Mr. Bean, and his 14-ish son, who looked roughly Asian. Both were wearing capris and legionnaire type khaki hats with long flappy ears and neck, giving them an incongruous Beau Peep appearance.

The guide was a young lady who introduced herself as Miss Yang. We only had the time to see a cross section of the caves – 10 caves, covering 2 ½ to 3 hours. To see them all would have taken several days. The first one she took us to contained the largest Buddha on view here – a sculpture 35 ½ meters from top to bottom. Some years back they’d thought the Buddha was 34 ½ meters high, but later they discovered four underlying layers of flooring at the foot of the cave, dating all the way back to the Tang Dynasty (7th – 9th century). Standing at the foot, it was a long long way up to the serenity of the Buddha’s expression. I remarked about the delicacy of his hands, and was told that this was a recent reconstruction. Miss Yang pointed us to two holes in the cave wall opposite the Buddha’s face – this was where the workmen had perched as they dug and carved their way from the head down.

The next cave was subterranean and markedly cooler. The Buddha here was 26 meters high and carved from the ground up, so no holes in the walls here. Local people always try and touch his big toe – well over head height and off limits, of course. (Every Buddha we saw everywhere had money scattered in front of him – people’s prayer offerings.) Next we went into a cave shaped like a coffin from inside. This was had a magnificent 15 meter long reclining Buddha – attained Nirvana – with a crowd of his life-sized disciples standing on three sides of him. Each statue had a distinctive expression of reaction to this divine event; the expressions ranged the gamut from the bliss of knowing to sadness and grief at his passing.

So on we went, cave after beautiful cave, with snippets of history thrown in. Everywhere, there were scores of paintings, much as we’d seen in the morning, spanning some fifteen thousand years, and of widely varying styles and influences (including some typical Indian ones as well). Interestingly, in many caves, original paintings had been repeatedly touched up by people from successive dynasties – “history and religion competing with each other” as Miss Yang put it. Other caves we saw included one where the White Russians had taken refuge, their fires blackening the walls and paintings. Then there was the cave where the American Langdon Warner had torn off part of the painting with “chemical glue” to take back to its salvation at Harvard. A full scale reproduction of the removed portion took pride of place in that cave, obscuring the Buddha and Boddhisattva statues that had been meant to take center stage. I thought to myself that I should definitely visit the Sackler Museum when I’m in Boston next month. Other caves had paintings depicting fantasies, and stories, and scenes from daily life. The lower levels featured portraits of those who had paid for the paintings – the style and opulence of their dresses varying with the age in which they’d lived.

As we walked, we chatted with Miss Yang. She asked us about Tibetan Buddhism; we told her the little we knew. She wasn’t too convinced when we said that to the best of our knowledge it was called Lamaism. Meanwhile the French kid was obviously bored, and his father, a Shanghai-based employee of a British hospitality firm, knew too little history to get involved in any sense. At times we explained some of the basics, like the concept of nirvana, to him. Finally we reached the last cave on our list – the one I wanted most to see. Cave #17: the Library cave. A typically narrow mouth opened into a space that was larger and set further back than what we’d seen in most of the other caves. Deep inside there were large statues of a Buddha flanked by two Bodhisattvas on either side. The distance from the mouth of the cave somehow contrived to throw long evocative shadows onto the back wall. (It would have made for a stunning photograph if cameras had been allowed in, but mine was lawfully back with Jessica, who was waiting outside the main entrance.) Nearer the entrance, to the right, was a small doorway that was sealed off with an iron gate. A crowd of Chinese tourists clustered around this, as their guide, standing by the gate, told them what was a long and obviously very emotive story. I thought it would have been the one about Aurel Stein’s thievery, but when asked, Miss Yang said it was something to do with some workmen smoking near these manuscripts. I did not fully believe her.

We walked into the interior of the cave and, waiting for the story to finish, admired the statues and lighting effects. I told the Frenchman the Aurel Stein story, playing up the Pelliot part to make him feel wanted. But even after I finished, the Chinese tourists’ story just seemed to go on forever. I lost my patience and joined the crowd, pressing forward as hard as I could without being offensive. I wanted to be near that gate. I wanted to look in. Miss Yang had sensed my urgency and had given me her flashlight. Finally, the story was over and the crowd, with a deep collective sigh, moved inside the cave. I was there by the iron grill. An idiot in a yellow t-shirt detached himself from the Chinese story group and tried to duck under the barrier and touch the wall. Immediately, he got yelled at by the guide – a startling rough loud sound after two hours of reverent cave-walking. The idiot was dragged off; I flashed my torch inside the alcove. Directly ahead squatted a smiling figure – a lifelike statue of the monk who’d commissioned the decoration of this particular cave a millennium ago. I angled the torch further left, and finally saw what I’d been waiting to see. There, up against the far wall of this tiny enclosure, was another small door – this one a blank face of iron, and sealed shut. It was here that Stein and Chiang, then Pelliot, had spent their sleepless nights – almost exactly a *hundred* years ago. Somehow, in the moment, that number seemed an awful lot larger than the thousand years that the cave had remained shut, the thousand-plus years that was the age of the statues gleaming in the angular golden light at the back of the cave.

I walked out happy. That cave formally concluded the tour. We strolled into the local museum – Abbot Wang’s erstwhile residence. The story of the Library cave was written across several panels here, fairly neutrally, I thought. There were displays and photographs taken of and by the main players – Wang, Stein’s party, Pelliot, von le Coq, and all the others. Several documents from the cave were in display – I found I could read fractions of a Sanskrit-type text as well as a Tibetan-type scroll. We walked out, met Jessica, TPB bought a set of postcards. Camera back in hand, I did a touristy thing and got photographed standing in front of Abbot Wang’s tomb, right by the main ticket office near the car park.


Back in the hotel, we rested for an hour and then came down to the lobby to meet Jessica for dinner. She was accompanied by her cousin, a young girl, a recent college graduate whose name I never caught. Walking the two minutes round the corner to the Dunhuang night market, she struck up a conversation with TPB, saying she had majored in English. I walked ahead bursting with suppressed laughter as TPB tried to communicate various forms (including “Shakespeare?”) of the question, “Did you study literature?” We never got to know the answer.

The night market turned out to be a bustling square filled with tables and chairs, with open-air stalls and conventional restaurants on all four sides. We walked in through a narrow entranceway and past several gesticulating restaurateurs to Lao Lu’s Barbecue, operated by J’s aggressive lady friend. We chose our table and I sat directly facing an employee of the next restaurant; a Uyghur skewer-wielder who bore an uncanny resemblance to Dustin Hoffman in the Graduate. This guy was funny – during the two or so hours that we were sitting there, he picked fights with several different people including his brother and our host.

Walking through the rows of tables to our particular position, TPB had noticed that many people there were eating sunflower seeds and raisins. She asked why our table didn’t have any. It turned out that they weren’t actually complimentary – but we wanted them anyway. And so get them we did, accompanied by the most distinctively flavored sweetish tart sundried tomatoes. J helped her order a set of vegetable skewers (easy choice: “one of each”). Then she suggested a grilled fish (“imported”) for me. And then, at my behest, a set of mouthwateringly good lamb skewers. All of these washed down with intermittent tiny glasses of Xiliang beer – the brand she recommended as being the best, as indeed from the taste it may have been. “Gam Bei!” we all said as we went, “Bottoms up”. But the Chinese ladies didn’t drink so much, they sipped at their beer as if it might bite them.

As we ate, life went on around. Dusk settled and business was good. A few different sets of singers approached us from time to time with printed lists of songs in Chinese – live jukeboxes. At one point, J jumped up and rushed off to stop a Swiss couple who’d been considering their options at the periphery of Lao Lu’s and looked as if they might prefer their dinner elsewhere. Her English skills were good enough to lure them to the table next to ours, and as she rejoined us she said, “They are my friend Amy’s guests.” That made me wonder where Amy was. Either way, our aggro lady appreciated the help. As we got up to leave I felt we were right in time. A young troubadour enlisted by someone at the next stall was just beginning to blow Kenny G on his soprano saxophone.

We walked out the square and up and down a lively street with stalls down the middle and on both sides, all kinds of merchandise available. We bought some apricots, the local specialty fresh as well as dried, a couple of peaches, some more raisins, and a cute clichéd woodcut of a camel caravan crossing the desert. As we walked back to our hotel, we passed the circle at the center of the city. There was a large modern statue of a common motif from the Mogao grottoes – that of an apsara playing a stringed instrument behind her back. A thousand years before Jimi Hendrix, I thought.

It was eleven by the time we returned, a most wonderful, eventful, memorable and satisfying day behind us.


Blogger Szerelem said...,,25353-1888945,00.html

Stumbling upon very approppriate links much?

8/05/2007 3:57 AM  
Blogger km said...

An apsara playing a stringed instrument behind her back? She *had* to be singing "'scuse me, while I kiss the sky".

8/05/2007 4:47 AM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

you're a gem.

heh. but of course :-D

8/05/2007 4:56 AM  
Blogger Szerelem said...

hello??!! what happens next??????

8/07/2007 6:49 AM  
Anonymous tabula rasa said...

ah, more exciting adventures happen next, of course. next update coming up in a day or so. stay tuned, young pumpkin.

8/07/2007 7:35 PM  

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